"Too many people spoil everything," my mother said. This when Phoenix passed the intolerable level of 600,000 residents and America 200 million. Now we're more than 100 million beyond that and it's difficult to argue we're that much better as a nation. The suburban apologist Joel Kotkin has written a book entitled, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His thesis, as Publisher's Weekly puts it: "a very sunny...forecast for the American economy, arguing that despite its daunting current difficulties, the U.S. will emerge by mid-century as the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history. Nourished by mass immigration and American society's proven adaptability, the country will reign supreme over an industrialized world beset by old age, bitter ethnic conflicts, and erratically functioning economic institutions." Funny, that dystopia sounds much like America in 2010. The success like America in 1970 or even 1990.
Thank God I saw the West when it was still relatively empty, when Arizona was such an exotic locale that most Americans had only seen it in Westerns. That's gone forever, especially in my home state, replaced by unmitigated ugliness almost every place that has been touched by human hands.
Interestingly, the decade's 9.7 percent growth rate nationally is the lowest since the Great Depression. Arizona clocked in as the nation's second-fastest growing state, at 24.6 percent, to reach 6.4 million. It probably would have seen an even larger population if not for the white-right war against Hispanics. Yet it is hardly 24.6 percent better by any other measure, certainly those involving quality of life or economic competitiveness. It barely made a dent in paying for the infrastructure to accommodate the 35-percent rise in the 1980s and the 40-percent rate of the 1990s. Nevada, No. 1 in growth this decade (35.1 percent), is an economic, social and environmental disaster. The nation as a whole is poorer, deeply in debt, mired in imperial adventures and falling behind the advanced nations of the world.
Crisis reveals character. Let me give you an example. One June night in 2003, Thomas J. O'Brien, the Roman Catholic bishop of Phoenix, was driving one of the city's incredibly broad, dark, high-speed "streets" when he struck a pedestrian. It was a telling moment. Although O'Brien claimed he didn't know he had hit a human being, he took the car home, stayed there the next day and called his secretary to arrange to have the shattered windshield replaced. He avoided the police long enough to leave questions about driving while impaired unanswerable. In the end, he was sentenced to probation and community service. Many Phoenicians noted, sympathetically, that the dead man was a "drunk Indian" who had probably wandered into traffic. And yet, and yet: The man was a person individually precious and sacred to the Lord that the bishop claimed to serve.
Imagine a different outcome. What if the bishop had immediately stopped, called 911 and rendered aid. What if he had administered the Sacrament for the Anointing of the Sick to the dying man? Bishop O'Brien would have been a hero, no matter what his blood alcohol level might have shown. But he didn't. Just as he dodged dealing with the local church sex scandals until he signed an agreement with the County Attorney giving up his authority over sex abuse charges in the diocese. Crisis reveals character.
O'Brien was replaced by another Thomas, last name Olmsted, who has kept a much lower profile. For example, in my columnist days there, I regularly ran into O'Brien, even was a table-mate of his twice at events. I never saw Olmsted. An Arizona Republicprofile tells us a bit more about him. And he has had his O'Brien moment: Choosing to strip 115-year-old St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix of its Catholic status. Its sin: Performing an abortion on a woman to save her life.
Gov. Jan Brewer has a solution to the state's Medicaid shortfall. Eliminate the program. She sent a letter to Speaker-to-be John Boehner and the state's congressional delegation "respectfully" asking that the feds eliminate the spending requirements for the program. "We cannot afford this increase without gutting every other state priority such as education and public safety," Brewer wrote. Arizona faces a fiscal shortfall of $2.25 billion over the next 18 months, with health care being one of the biggest component of the budget.
The woman who thinks she thinks, yet who crushed the worthy Terry Goddard in the election, offers this as a Christmas gift in a state now notorious, yet again — this time for letting transplant patients die. The Legislature Kookocracy tried earlier this year to kill the KidsCare program, a legacy of the St. Janet years, aimed at helping the children of the working poor. They reversed course only when they realized Arizona would consequently lose $7 billion in federal money. In fact, Arizona wouldn't even have a Medicaid program if not for a lawsuit years ago. So the solution is simple: Eliminate federal mandates so the program can be starved into oblivion. The process is well under way here. It is the legislative equivalent of the cruelty emblemized by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the private prison racket, an approach heavily supported by the mega-churchers and LDS that are a bedrock of the Kookocracy.
This is the season Christians celebrate as advent, the expectant coming of Jesus. His lessons were simple and radical: Love your neighbor, love your enemies. Jesus stood up for the last, the least and the lost. This is not exclusive to Christianity, either. All through the Old Testament, the anger of the Lord is kindled when the Israelites fail to care for the widows, orphans and poor, and the aliens, for they themselves were once sojourners in a foreign land. God speaks through the prophets on these subjects again and again. Arizona has eyes but will not see, ears but will not hear.
"With the stroke of a pen, President Obama on Friday enacted the largest tax cut in nearly a decade and, in the process, took a big step toward reinventing himself as a champion of compromise in a politically fractured capital." Thus began a news analysis by one of the leading sources of elite opinion, The New York Times. Nevermind that the "tax cut" is really an extension of a rate reduction that failed to either propel growth or job creation after 10 years in place, and must be borrowed from our friends, the Red Chinese. The point, you see, is that Mr. Hoover has learned his lesson from the famous mid-term "shellacking." The Times reports, "the president who has emerged appears increasingly more confident than chastened, eager to revive his campaign image as a postpartisan leader who can work across party lines even at the cost of alienating his own supporters."
Many problems confront this scenario. One is that the Republicans are too smart, and the plutocracy behind them too powerful, to allow another Clinton triangulation. No amount of groveling before CEOs or the U.S. Chamber will cause them to like President Hoover. The plutocracy owns the Congress, and now, clearly, the Supreme Court. This is not the 1990s. It is a new Gilded Age with cheap trinkets from Asia to keep the proles distracted. And what did we get for Bill Clinton's vaunted triangulation anyway? Deregulation that killed millions of good jobs and set us up for the financial crash. Impeachment. A wasted presidency.
The deeper dilemma facing the president's strategy comes down to this: What is the center in America today? Does it even matter?
Starting Tuesday, we'll get a huge data dump from the 2010 Census. We will learn, for example, whether Phoenix remains the nation's fifth most populous city or if it has been eclipsed by San Antonio. The dear hopes of boosters, that it would surpass Houston at No. 4 (as if raw population alone was a gold standard), won't happen. But the American Community Survey, a useful in-depth report on a variety of areas, came out this week with information through 2009.
The main city of the metro area is poorer than in 2000. In Phoenix, 18.2 percent of the population is below the poverty line; for children, the number is 26.3, well above the state's shocking 20.8 percent. In 1999, the overall number was 15.8 percent. In Colorado, by comparison, the 2009 rate is 15.7 percent (26.4 percent in Denver) and Washington state's 15.3 percent (12.4 percent in Seattle).
The fall in median household income from 2000 to 2009 is widespread across the metro area. Much of Maryvale saw drops of 25 percent or more. But most of Peoria and Glendale didn't fare much better. In Scottsdale, McCormick Ranch Census tracks saw declines from 16 percent to 24 percent. Most of Ahwatukee saw incomes nosedive up to 26 percent from 2000. Rises in formerly rural areas are entirely an artifice of more people moving into new subdivisions. Interestingly, central Phoenix saw an income rise (up 17 percent in Willo/Alvarado and 9 percent in Palmcroft), going along with a national trend.
Many people remained at work despite the depressed economy. The employment-to-population ratio in Phoenix is 69.5 percent vs. a metro area of 70.7. In Seattle, the ratio is 75.6.
Once upon a time, the Phoenix 40 ran this town, got things done, showed real leadership. The Phoenix 40 was an exclusionary bunch of powerful white men trying to hold onto their power in changing times. The Phoenix 40 was only the tip of an iceberg of evil and corruption that sits deep in the DNA of the city and state. So go the tales, myths and realities long after the legendary group morphed into the benign and toothless Greater Phoenix Leadership.
The real Phoenix 40 was formed in 1974 by Arizona Republic publisher Eugene Pulliam (left), lawyer-civic leader Frank Snell and KOOL owner Tom Chauncey. They sent a letter to prospective members and 40 leaders, including Gov. Raul Castro, showed up at the Biltmore for the first meeting in early 1975. The group hoped to focus on transportation, crime and education — crime getting top billing after the murder of a key witness in the land-fraud trial of Ned Warren Sr. The original membership is no secret, not quite 40, and reads like a Who's Who of mid-1970s Phoenix: Clarke Bean, Hayes Caldwell, Chauncey, Msgr. Robert Donohoe, Junius Driggs, Karl Eller, George Getz, Sherman Hazeltine, Robert Johnson, George Leonard, Stephen Levy, James Maher, Richard Mallery, Samuel Mardian, Jr., James Mayer, Rod McMullin, Loyal Meek, Dennis Mitchem, Pat Murphy, Rev. Culver Nelson, William Orr, Jesse Owens, Pulliam, William Reilly Sr., Newton Rosenzweig, Raymond Shaffer, Bill Shover, James Simmons, Paul Singer, Lawson Smith, Snell, Franz Talley, Thomas Tang, Maurice Tanner, Keith Turley, Mason Walsh, Robert Williams and Russell Williams.
And, yes, it's telling that the list didn't include, say, Lincoln Ragsdale or Rosendo Gutierrez. Yet the Phoenix 40 was never as dangerous as its critics feared nor as benign as it claimed to be, but it's an important touchstone in the city's evolution to the current unpleasantness.
A column recommending books for the holidays might seem like a lazy columnist's trick (and I know 'em all). But as we collapse into a society of limited attention spans, where even smart people rarely venture outside their bunkers of expertise, where fewer and fewer American men are reading(!), let us brace ourselves to read and give books. Here are some that touch on issues we regularly address on Rogue:
The shelves groan under the number of books written about the financial crisis, its aftermath, causes and needed fixes. My favorites are Freefall: America, Free Markets and the Sinking of the World Economy, by nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz; 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak; Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance, by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm, and Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, by Robert Reich. It's a soup-to-nuts telling of the bought-off politics, bad policy, deregulation and greed that brought on the crash, to the steps we must take in order to save ourselves. Not that we will.
The latest cooked-up "conservative" distraction is about American "exceptionalism." If you want to see us at out best, and worse, and exceptional, read Taylor Branch's magisterial trilogy on America in the King years: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge. Every literate citizen should know these books and this history.
As I write this, President Hoover is once again negotiating against himself, this time on extension of the Bush tax cuts. In exchange for a two-year extension on the Bush cuts, Mr. Obama will get, supposedly, a continuation of benefits for the unemployed and a reduction in payroll taxes. In another world, this would set up 2012 as a referendum on historically low taxes on the rich (and virtually no taxes on perfectly legal tax evasion by major corporations). But that world would require a Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, which no longer exists outside of a few members of Congress and underfunded advocacy groups. The American future is found, once again, in Arizona, which has attracted national attention for the Legislature's slash-and-burn approach to Medicaid. It's a program the state never would have adopted without a court order. Now, cuts to the program are a death sentence for transplant patients. Remember the hysteria during the health-care debate over "death panels." It's happening now, under Republican control, where the rich are protected and devil take the hindmost.
Expect more of the same, and not just in Medicaid. Our infrastructure is decades behind that of our competitors, and what we have needs $1.6 trillion just to get into good condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most of our schools are underfunded, most of our teachers underpaid. American dominance in research and development is slipping. This is what happens when federal taxes are at a 60-year low, even as the demands (and, yes, appetites) of a complex, urbanized nation have grown. The inadequacy of tax revenue, along with the cost of empire and the recession, have put the deficit at 10 percent of GDP and debt nearly 93 percent of GDP. Yet the answers, from Mr. Obama's own commission, are to slam the middle class and start to welsh on Social Security, just as states are doing on their solemn pension obligations. Nevermind that conservative presidents and policies are most responsible for the red ink. Your tax cuts at work. At stake is whether we will still have a civilization, a meritocracy, a commons — or merely be a market for the Chinese and a looting ground for the rich playerz.
It's the sweet season in Phoenix, with the usual nice weather, resort amenities and economic forecasts. The panel at the annual lunch sponsored by JPMorgan Chase and ASU was its usual sunny self. According to the Arizona Republic, Philadelphia economist Joel Naroff said, "Better times are ahead. I truly believe this is a recovery, that this is an economic change that you can count on." ASU economist Lee McPheters told attendees, "2011 is going to be the best year for Arizona's economic growth in the past three years. So, I think there are bright skies ahead."
Another sense of the luncheon comes from the tweets by Channel 12 anchor, and former Republic business editor, Brahm Resnik: "Show of hands at Chase econ forecast luncheon indicates (fewer than) 6 people in room of 1200 believe recession is over." "1 year ago #PHX job losses were worst in US. Now, PHX No. 2 in US (sure doesn't feel that way)." " 'At threshold of recovery,' McPheters keeps saying." "Home prices have not hit bottom, Pollack says." "Apartment market only (commercial) market that looks good. The rest of you might consider suicide," Pollack tells crowd. "Pollack says 4-5 more years till commercial construction returns to normal (same as his forecast year ago)." Pollack being Elliott, the developer/economist who was once one of the biggest cheerleaders of the Real Estate Industrial Complex.
It's one sign of the trauma wrought by the Phoenix depression that Elliott Pollack is the realist in the room. Unfortunately, the overall tone sounds much like every year's brightside delusion, while the facts confronting Phoenix, Arizona and America keep sliding in the opposite direction.